Robots have taken over the world. I blame our lack of preparation on the beloved dystopian novelists and movie directors of my adolescence, who envisioned this siege with great creativity. But alas, flying drones, 20-foot droids and Ultron are not the robots we needed to fear. No, the robots I speak of fit in our pockets and bookbags. They do not have menacing appearances, yet they have achieved world domination. These robots — cell phones, laptops and even the Nintendo DS — have transcended beyond what humans could’ve ever imagined.
We like to believe that we are controlling these devices, but in reality, they control us. The New York Times reported in 2017 that people between the ages of 18 and 24 check their phones, on average, 82 times a day. Maybe this is why we neglect the Screen Time feature on our cell phones — for fear of shame. And quite frankly, quarantine has not made this problem better, but worse. Between online classes, PDF readings, checking emails, scrolling social media platforms and the occasional Netflix binge, I have begun to feel — as my professor put it — oppressed by screens.
This is not to discredit my gratitude for the ability to see and hear from loved ones, colleagues and the Yale community I appreciate so dearly. In fact, platforms like Zoom and FaceTime are the key to connecting friends and family across borders during global pandemics. But being within six feet of a living, breathing being is matchless. I long for the day to see my classmates in full, rather than just their head and shoulders.
These robots have grown past simple utility, or substitution, and have become the predominant form of networking and communication. Think about it: When was the last time you searched for a word in a dictionary, or played a record? How many hand-written letters have you sent in your lifetime?
I remember my grandfather insisting that he’d only teach me how to drive when I knew how to read the map he always kept in his glove compartment. How antiquated this task seemed, since at the tap of my finger, I knew (or, at least the robot told me) the directions to any given destination. The reliability of the map for my grandfather is what my phone is for me and many of those in my generation. We can’t leave the house without it.
But our dependence on these robots frightens me, even more than the fact that we can’t seem to navigate this world without them. I fear that their perfection has begun to seep into our perceptions of ourselves and each other. Technology mandates that we be flawless — take the perfect Instagram picture, edit our posts and delete our mistakes — instead of accepting the messiness that comes with everyday life. I wonder if our identities have become too picture-perfect, as we look to match our internet personas.
But we are not faultless, and neither are our surroundings. There are no edit buttons or filters in this world. This pandemic has not only pierced the guise of supposed equality, but it’s also tied people together through hardship. We can no longer afford to live in our social media bubbles; we must face the world as it is, flaws and all.
This understanding should also extend to our communities, and ourselves. Our identities are more complex than a snapshot or 280-character tweet. We are worth more than the perfection of our profiles or the success of our LinkedIn accounts. The beauty in being human stems from our experiences, and the stories we live to share. Stories that surpass our social media bios and captions. After all, few pictures are worth a thousand words.
Just before the stay-at-home order, my sister’s fourth grade teacher conducted an experiment with her class. The children were asked to bring their electronic devices to the classroom, where they would solely rely on the devices for communication and instruction. Naturally, all of the students were more than happy to oblige this challenge. But they soon grew frustrated with their robots, yearning for the voices of their teacher and friends. That day, they learned the value of human interaction.
I encourage everyone to unplug and engage deeply in self-reflection about your experiences, before and during this pandemic. Relearn who you are in this moment, and who you’d like to become as we emerge. And maybe — since we can only rely on the robots that connect us — once we resurface, we will take advantage of our technology-free options. Libraries will be crowded, and we will appreciate annotations in the margins; coffee shops and restaurants will be jam-packed, with no phones in sight as people cherish grabbing a meal together. We will stop capturing our moments, and learn to live in them.
Social distancing is the world’s technology experiment. And just like my sister’s fourth grade class, perhaps we’ll learn that robots are here to make our lives easier, but nothing can replace human connection.
ZAPORAH PRICE is a first year in Ezra Stiles College. Her columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .